Trump Is No Different

For years, Republicans have talked a tough game on immigration but softened once in office—and now, the president does the same.

Donald Trump visits the U.S. border with Mexico in July 2015.
Donald Trump visits the U.S. border with Mexico in July 2015. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

Last night at the White House, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer struck another deal. Or maybe they didn’t, depending on who’s speaking. The messaging tug-of-war between the two sides continues now, and it’s interesting for any number of reasons—obviously, the fate of DACA, but also the future of Trump’s nascent alliance with Democrats, and the future of Trump’s relationship with Republican leaders. (My colleague Russell Berman covers the details in depth.)

But regardless of who’s telling the truth, and whether any such deal ever makes it into law, the greater significance is that Trump has fully embraced amnesty. While he has expressed desire to help the “Dreamers,” unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children, in the past, the apparent agreement with the congressional Democratic leaders, and Trump’s comments on it Thursday morning, cement the fact that Trump, the most openly anti-immigrant presidential nominee in generations, turns out to have all the same hesitations about deporting bright young would-be Americans as every other elite politician.

Last week, Trump struck a deal with Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, and Schumer, her Senate counterpart, on disaster relief, the debt ceiling, and government funding, over Republican objections. Democrats hoped, and Republicans feared, that would be a prelude to a deal on DACA favorable to Democrats. And after a dinner meeting Wednesday, it seemed those expectations had been realized. In a statement, Schumer and Pelosi said, “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law very quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.”

Thursday morning, Trump disputed that account on Twitter—sort of. In a series of tweets, he claimed there had been no deal, but what he described confirmed the outlines of an understanding as Pelosi and Schumer stated them:

Other than stating there was no deal, Trump seemed to be on the same page as the Democrats: The tradeoff would be for border security; obviously there would have to be a vote, since that’s how Congress works; and the wall was separate. Later, speaking to reporters on Air Force One, he confirmed all of this.

"We're working on a plan—subject to getting massive border controls. We're working on a plan for DACA. People want to see that happen. You have 800,000 young people, brought here, no fault of their own,” he said. “The wall will come later.”

Trump’s next tweets were even more remarkable:

These are all the same arguments that Barack Obama (among many others) made in favor of the DREAM Act and later, when that failed, in favor of DACA, Obama’s executive patch. However Trump describes it, that’s a shocking turnaround for a president who made hardline immigration policies—often delivered in demagogic fashion—the center of his campaign.

Trump’s position on DACA has been softening for some time, but his apparent deal with Pelosi and Schumer, and his tweeted support for allowing Dreamers to stay, cement a monumental shift. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to end DACA immediately upon taking office, part of his suite of hard-edged immigration proposals.

His rhetoric scandalized the press and even his Republican rivals, but many voters delighted in his bluntness. Time and again, Trump supporters told me that they sometimes winced at the way the candidate spoke, but that they were willing to forgive it because they appreciated that he said what he meant. For years, Republican candidates have been running on platforms of controlling immigration, and for years, they have betrayed their core voters’ wishes once they made it into office, deciding—whether out of a better sense of the issue, soft-heartedness, or surrender to elite consensus—that wide-scale deportations were unfeasible and that some form of amnesty, for at least some unauthorized immigrants, was a worthy goal. (It was Ronald Reagan, after all, who oversaw the largest amnesty in U.S. history.)

Trump was supposed to be different. “Donald Trump says some out-there things—we all know he does—but he’s not a career politician,” a man told me at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Everyone else is a puppet. He says what he wants to say,” another told me in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Everyone else is controlled by political correctness.” As a non-politician who had made his own fame and fortune in another sector, supporters saw Trump as the one candidate who would finally not disappoint them. He was not beholden to pro-immigration donors, the Republican Party, or politeness. Why would someone willing to call Mexicans rapists and criminals hesitate to follow through on his immigration-enforcement promises?

But Trump did occasionally waver. In August 2016, he and his aides publicly waffled on his vows to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants. During a town hall with Sean Hannity, Trump polled the audience on what he should do. He described an amnesty plan while insisting it wasn’t really amnesty. Supporting amnesty, while insisting it is not amnesty, has been a signature move of mainstream politicians in both parties, but Trump was supposed to be different.

Though Trump reverted to hardline after that late-summer dalliance with amnesty, he has once again seemed to soften since taking office. At a press conference in February, he said he would replace DACA with something that would “get just about everything, in some ways more.” Suddenly, what had seemed like a cut-and-dried matter on the trail was more nuanced and complicated.

“We’re going to show great heart,” he said. “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids, in many cases—not in all cases. In some of the cases they’re having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids—I would say mostly—they were brought here in such a way—it's a very, very tough subject.”

Meanwhile, Trump didn’t move to immediately revoke DACA. Finally, last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to rescind the program. But Trump’s decision left a concession: He delayed the rescission by six months in order to allow Congress to implement a fix, and he made clear (unlike Sessions) that he wanted a fix. After the debt-ceiling deal with Democrats, Trump tweeted, at Pelosi’s behest, that Dreamers “have nothing to worry about” in terms of deportation during the six-month delay. Then came this week’s new alleged deal with Pelosi and Schumer. Trump’s new stance—backing DACA while also supporting deportation of other unauthorized immigrants—places him just a hair to the right of Barack Obama.

On Air Force One, Trump suggested that getting spending on border security comprised a concession from Democrats. But although many Democrats are skeptical of the necessity or wisdom of spending more on border security, they have always been willing to trade that for amnesty. It’s funding for Trump’s border wall that is a red line, and one they still haven’t crossed.

Trump also pointed out that the Republican leaders in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan, though not part of the Wednesday night deal, have also publicly supported a DACA fix.

“Mitch is on board, Paul Ryan’s on board,” the president said. “We all feel, look, 92 percent of the people agree on DACA, but what we want is very, very powerful border security, OK?”

But McConnell and Ryan have long taken a more moderate path on immigration. It’s Trump who has changed. Of course, softening one’s position on immigration once in office is what all those other Republicans who disappointed voters did. Trump could change his mind and abandon whatever deal he made with Pelosi and Schumer; it wouldn’t be the first time. But his statements over the last week have made clear that at heart, he too supports amnesty, and the damage may be done. Breibart labeled him “Amnesty Don”; Representative Steve King of Iowa was furious. It turns out the candidate’s coarse rhetoric really was just rhetoric, and Trump isn’t really all that different.